Analysts tell Doha News that some Gulf countries are acknowledging that isolating Tehran was not the right decision.
More than a year has passed since the GCC and Egypt signed the historic Al-Ula Declaration, which was followed by the resumption of ties between the former blockading states with Qatar.
Within months into the accord, Gulf countries that had once cited Qatar’s relations with Iran as a reason to cut off their ties with Doha, began re-engaging with Tehran.
The bloc, however, has long been divided vis-a-vis Iran, with each member of the GCC having its own history with the country.
This divide exists in spite of the core objective of the GCC when it was formed following the 1980 Iran-Iraq war, which was to promote joint security, economic, cultural and social cooperation.
“The GCC’s approach has had different levels. On one level, the GCC as a collective of security organisations or a cooperative organisation has issued united statements, for example when it comes to the issue of condemning Iran,” Dr. Mehran Kamrava, Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar, tells Doha News.
On one hand, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait had taken what was seen as a more pragmatic approach towards Iran, whilst the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia preferred years of piling tensions with Iran.
“Oman has had cordial and warm relations, Qatar also has had friendly relations if not very deep. Kuwait’s relations with Iran have also been largely devoid of tensions,” says Dr. Kamrava.
In addition to their own historical conflicts, another factor contributing to the differences in GCC’s relations with Iran is their proxy battles in countries including Yemen, Lebanon and Syria.
Yemen has been torn by conflict since 2015, when the Saudi-led coalition launched a military intervention to push back Iran-backed Houthi rebels in a bid to reinstate the government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
In Lebanon, Riyadh backs several Sunni and Maronite groups as Tehran supports the Shia Hezbollah movement.
When it comes to Syria, Iran has long backed the Bashar Al Assad regime as Saudi Arabia supported various rebel groups to topple the Syrian dictator. Last year, however, suggested a shift in Riyadh’s foreign policy with the Assad regime with reports stating that Riyadh held talks with Syria to normalise diplomatic ties.
Post Al-Ula rapprochement
The split in each Gulf country’s stance over Iran was further witnessed in 2017, when Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt imposed an illegal air, land and sea blockade on Qatar.
Amongst the 13 demands put forth by the quartet in order to lift the embargo on Doha, was for it to sever its ties with Iran.
Aside from Qatar’s offers to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran on one side, and between Abu Dhabi and Tehran on another, the countries seemed to have taken matters in their own hands.
Last year, the UAE’s top national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Iran to discuss bilateral ties between the two countries. The move suggested a thaw in Tehran-Abu Dhabi relations.
Al Nahyan’s visit followed statements by the UAE President’s diplomatic adviser Anwar Gargash, who said his country was “taking steps to de-escalate tensions with Iran as part of a policy choice towards diplomacy and away from confrontation”.
The talks, however, came months before Iran-backed Houthi rebels conducted a series of attacks on the UAE in January 2022, and which were the first assaults claimed by the Houthis on the UAE since 2018.
“I think now the Iranians are completely focused on the Vienna negotiations and want to keep the Emiratis informed, assuming that the UAE will convey whatever information they have to the Saudis,” says Dr. Kamrava.
In Saudi Arabia, officials held four rounds of talks with Tehran in Baghdad. More recently, the Kingdom said that it is seeking to schedule a fifth round of direct talks with Iran.
“We don’t know what the discussions meant in Baghdad, but we do know that the progress hasn’t been as substantive as we assumed at the beginning and there are a number of standing issues,” Dr. Kamrava tells Doha News.
The Riyadh-Tehran talks were seen as a major step towards the restoration of diplomatic relations, after Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran in 2016. The decision came after the storming of the Saudi embassy in Iran, which came after the execution of Shiite cleric Nimr Al-Nimr, that year, by Saudi Arabia.
Qatar also recalled its ambassador to Iran up until 2017—when the GCC crisis began escalating. As Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE and Egypt imposed the illegal air, land and sea embargo on Qatar, Iran delivered food to the country.
“Obviously there has been learning on the part of the Saudis and the Emiratis. They discovered that the boycott on Qatar was a disaster. It was a catastrophe and Qatar came out stronger,” Dr. Mehran Kamrava, Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar, tells Doha News.
As for Bahrain, there has been no clear initiative for rapprochement with Iran. Unlike the rest of the former blockading quartet, ties between Qatar and Bahrain have yet to resume, with the latter blaming Doha for ignoring its invitations for dialogue.
Bahrain has accused Iran of meddling in its affairs by supporting the country’s Shia community to “rebel against the Sunni leadership”. In 2011, during the Bahraini uprising, Saudi and Emirati troops were deployed to the country to arrest protestors.
“What we are likely going to see is the steady reduction of tensions between Iran and the GCC as a whole and between Iran and specific members of the GCC,” says Dr. Kamrava.
Iran’s initiatives to hold dialogue with the region was seen even before Al-Ula, when former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani introduced the Hormuz Peace Endeavour (HOPE) in 2019. Rouhani said that the initiative aimed at promoting “peace, stability, progress and welfare” for the region. After the announcement, he extended letters to Arab and Gulf states to reduce tensions and provide maritime navigation in the Strait of Hormuz.
“For the longest time, the Saudis were not even willing to hear Iran out, if you remember former President Rouhani and former Foreign Minister [Javad] Zarif kept advocating for dialogue and the Saudis were simply not interested,” says Dr. Kamrava.
The professor notes that in comparison with the time HOPE was announced, Iran and its GCC rivals are now “breaking the ice”.
Change in US administrations
Another major player throughout the GCC crisis was the former US Trump administration, which encouraged the blockade on Qatar in its beginnings.
Before taking office in January 2017, Trump criticised the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The accord was introduced in 2015 by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
Within the deal, Iran agreed to reduce its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of US sanctions. Members of the deal included the P5+1, which include the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany.
Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018 as he exercised his “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran. This was followed with heightened tensions between the US and Iran, which was further worsened with the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in 2020.
The assassination of the top Iranian official heightened tensions in the region and pushed the US and Iran to the brink of war.
Dr. Kamrava believes that the Trump administration’s moves weakened prospects of peace between the GCC and Iran, just as Riyadh and Tehran had started to negotiate after the introduction of HOPE.
“The Iranians and Saudis were beginning to negotiate. And then Qassim Soleimani was killed, and the Saudis assumed that the killing of Soleimani had weakened Iran and so they stopped negotiations… is a mistaken assumption,” says Dr. Kamrava.
Trump’s moves to pressure Iran were reflected in the blockade and added to what has been described as “Iranophobia” in the region and beyond. This was carried out in various forms, mainly by saying Iran is developing a nuclear weapon.
Israel has been repeating those accusations over the past decades, ultimately to maintain its military power in the region and continue to occupy Palestinian lands without a threat.
“The Trump administration and the [George] Bush administration, not the [Barack] Obama administration, thought they could pressure and marginalise Iran or pretend it doesn’t exist,” says Dr. Kamrava.
The Biden administration was expected to reverse Trump’s policies, where the Vienna talks in 2021 were considered to be the first move in reviving the deal. However, US rhetoric on Iran appears to have remained the same, with the former accusing Tehran of breaching the JCPOA despite being the ones who withdrew from the accord.
Recent reports suggest that a deal is imminent, signalling hope in the restoration of the nuclear accord.
Change in Iran’s administrations
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi assumed office in August last year following his predecessor Rouhani.
Whilst Dr. Kamrava believes that it is still too soon to determine the differences between the Rouhani and Raisi administrations, the latter has already pushed for more negotiations with the GCC.
“The foreign minister [Hossein Amir-Abdollahian] is an Arabist. In Iran he is known as a specialist on Arab affairs and the Saudis and everyone else knows it,” says Dr. Kamrava.
Amir-Abdollahian served as Iran’s ambassador to Bahrain from 2007-2010. Prior to that, he was the special assistant to the foreign minister for Iraqi affairs from 2003-2006.
He was then appointed as the Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs between 2011-2016, under the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration.
Though the blockade on Qatar has been lifted, and both US and Iranian administrations have gone through changes, it remains unclear what the next steps for rapprochement are between Iran and the various GCC states.